Cecil Gaines is a man who grew up on a plantation and began an extraordinary path that would lead him to influencing extraordinary people. After witnessing the murder of his father on the plantation, Cecil was brought into the house to learn more domestic servitude. He eventually decided it was time to leave and had to fend for himself until he was brought in by a house servant in North Carolina. His impressive skills were noticed, which led to his relocation to Washington DC, and eventually he was brought in to become a butler at the White House. Over the years, he served president after president, all while struggling with his own family drama at home and with his son’s more activist personality.
Starring: Forest Whitaker/Michael Rainey Jr. (Cecil Gaines), David Banner (Earl Gaines), Mariah Carey (Hattie Pearl), Alex Pettyfer (Thomas Westfall), Vanessa Redgrave (Annabeth Westfall), Clarence Williams III (Maynard), John P. Fertitta (Mr. Jenkins), Jim Gleason (RD Warner), Oprah Winfrey (Gloria Gaines), David Oyelowo (Louis Gaines), Isaac White/Elijah Kelley (Charlie Gaines), Colman Domingo (Freddie Fallows), Adriane Lenox (Gina), Terrence Howard (Howard), Tyson Ford (Elroy), Cuba Gooding Jr. (Carter Wilson), Lenny Kravitz (James Holloway), Pernell Walker (Lorraine), Robin Williams (Dwight D. Eisenhower), John Cusack (Richard Nixon), Jesse Williams (James Lawson), Olivia Washington (Olivia), James Marsden (John F. Kennedy), Minka Kelly (Jacqueline Kennedy), Chloe Barach (Caroline Kennedy), Liev Schreiber (Lyndon B. Johnson), Nelsan Ellis (Martin Luther King Jr.), Colin Walker (John Ehrlichman), Alex Manette (Bob Halderman), Alan Rickman (Ronald Reagan), Jane Fonda (Nancy Reagan)
This was truly an all-star cast that came together to tell this story. Whitaker showed a strong sense of restraint required for his role, but he had many scenes where the pain and anguish were clear. Winfrey was also quite engaging with her moments of light-heartedness and strong-willed challenges. Howard and Gooding Jr. helped to give a little levity to Whitaker’s role while having moments that complicated his character’s personal life. Meanwhile, each of the presidential characters varied in their performances, where Rickman had Nixon’s brashness but lacked his image while Schreiber looked more like Johnson but did not have as much screen time to truly represent the role. Similarly, Ellis did not look like MLK but had a great moment of clarity with Oyelowo.
Lee Daniel’s adaptation of Danny Strong’s and Wil Haygood’s story took a true story about a White House butler and expanded it into a full feature. Cecil actually did grow up on a plantation, though his father was not actually murdered like it was shown in the film. He also was from Virginia, not North Carolina. When he left for better employment, he was able to leave under his own power, just like in the film. Moving forward to his family life, Gloria was not nearly as troubled as depicted in the film. She did not have an alcohol problem or an affair with Howard. While they did have a son who served in Vietnam, they only had one son and he did not die in the war. Louis was more of a lens to depict the civil rights movement and hold a contrast to Cecil’s devotion to his job.
Cecil was actually promoted to the butler position after serving in the pantry for the first few years. He was present during the vital moment with Eisenhower but in a slightly different context. When Kennedy was shot, the film accurately depicted an emotional moment with Jackie Kennedy and her presenting one of JFK’s ties to Cecil. For his years with Reagan, there was actually a similar rapport between Cecil and the presidential family. After leaving the position, Cecil and Gloria were quite involved in the Obama campaign and he was incredibly excited by the result of 2008 election, even attending the inauguration.
The film may not be completely accurate in its portrayal of an extraordinary White House butler, but the acting and the drama make this quite an entertaining retelling of this man’s story.
Dan’s Rating: 3.5/5